Inspiration Ratio: How Do We Sustain the Love of Learning?

Going through the pictures on my phone, I ran across one photo that deserves a little blogging:

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About a year ago, I entered my office area’s common space to see the words above written on a piece of chart paper.  Distinguishing the handwriting, I could tell it was a note from our superintendent.  While the statement caught my attention, any more specificity in detail escaped me at the time.  Thankfully, she was able to clarify her note to my teammates and me later that day.

What is an Inspiration Ratio?

“How many teachers does it take,” she asked, “to sustain the passion, the joy, the love of learning for a student, PK-12?”  She went on to define the concept of an “Inspiration Ratio,” a personal “valuation” of one’s educational path.  To find it, each of us must first remember our own PK-12 academic career, and put ourselves back into the role of student.  Then, by using the total number of teachers that worked with each of us as the denominator, and the “inspirational teachers” that stoked our passion for learning as a numerator, each learner can calculate his or her own Inspiration Ratio.  The “1/27” was not a date or a location, she explained, but a sample Inspiration Ratio: of her 27 teachers over her PK-12 student career, she distinctly remembered one who inspired her to see true joy in learning.  What’s interesting, she noted, is that while only one of these 27 teachers had spurred on this excitement for lifelong learning, for her, it only took one (thereby displaying the power of just one teacher).  She then challenged each of us to consider our own Inspiration Ratios, the impact that our teachers had on our current path, and the students for whom we may be that one teacher.

My own Inspiration Ratio

Since that afternoon, I have done several different back of the envelope calculations of my own Inspiration Ratio, as I am sure you are thinking about doing right now.  While I find a slightly different value each time, the level of engagement I feel while walking through the footsteps of my own learning path is the same.  In an instant, I am back in those hallways, seeing every assignment and hearing every verbal exchange anew.  I furrow my brow with the design challenge of a real-world experiment that has dozens of “right” answers.  I pour my soul onto the practice floor to earn back the spot in the basketball team’s starting five.  I panic as I stand before a room full of underclassmen I have never met, preparing to recite the first words of Phillip Larkin’s “A Study of Reading Habits.”  Back in those adolescent shoes- but through these adult eyes- I start a list of all of those teachers that have ever worked with me in school, and consider the impact that they have had on my life.  (P.S. If it strikes you to move away from your browser or RSS reader and make your own list now, please do so by all means.  This is a static text, after all – it will still be here when you return. Just promise to come back!)

In calculating my own Inspiration Ratio, I’m struck by how in minutes, I can remember the name of 71 teachers that I worked with over my PK-12 academic career.  Without too much challenge, I even recall those high school days right down to each year’s 7-period class schedule!  Within this 13-year timeframe, I count 17 distinct teachers who I remember as having a direct impact on my passion for lifelong learning, giving me an Inspiration Ratio of 17/71.  In other words, of all of the teachers that worked with me as a student, I consider 25% of them as having directly inspired me to sustain a love of learning.

Of my 71 teachers, what do I remember most about those 17?  They did not give me a voice- they allowed me to find my own.  They did not push me- they presented me with opportunities for growth that were both challenging and attainable, and just as I thought I had reached as far as I could, they encouraged me to reach farther.  They did not tell me that I did a “good job” in my learning- they instead celebrated my desire, as one teacher put it, “to learn just because the world is there, waiting to be understood.”  In short, even in the shortest of conversations, I felt that they built a relationship with me, and engaged me as a learner.  Each of those moments live on forever as I carry these teachers with me- long after they have “finished the job” of teaching my class, they continue to help me grow toward continuous improvement.

I wonder often which, if any, of my former students would have listed me as one of the teachers in their Inspiration Ratio’s numerator.  Even as I consider the question of how I might have inspired them, however, I am reminded of how they are the ones who inspire me.  My students and my teammates give me the drive to put in the necessary time and energy to keep growing, and they make it feel as natural as breathing.  Without that inspiration, I know I would have been driven from this profession long ago.  It dawns on me that this process of sustaining a love of learning is a cyclical system, a reinforcing feedback loop that Senge would label as having a snowball effect.  So long as each of us seeks to inspire the love of learning in those around us, we will continue to be inspired by the passion of those around us.

Organizational connection

In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the importance of identifying “what drives [our] resource engine.”  He challenges organizations to seek out those ratios have the greatest impact on economic growth.  (For example, in the business world, finding the “unit-x” that best fits a “profit-per-unit-x” ratio can help greatly to clarify their mission with pinpoint precision.)  In the social sectors, however, finding the right resources to consider within the ratio is more important then finding the right “unit x” for the denominator (since it’s a given that profit isn’t exactly something educators seek).  Since teachers have such a profound effect on student learning, and the “ultimate goal” for our profession is to inspire lifelong learning, could the Inspiration Ratio somehow fit as a step in defining our resource engine?  In other words, do we ask ourselves this question enough: “What effect will this decision have on our abilities and opportunities to inspire lifelong learning?”

Just imagine the concept using the love of learning as a guide for each of our decisions as educators, with the ultimate purpose of getting every student’s Inspiration Ratio closer to 100%…is it possible that the answer could be that simple?

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2 thoughts on “Inspiration Ratio: How Do We Sustain the Love of Learning?

  1. As I search through the yellowed photo albums and dusty year books, I find myself saying "right, I remember her now." So it is taking me a while to determine my denominator. The numerator on the other hand is fairly easy to determine because the few who formed my foundation, built it solid and strong. So with my lists tallied and ratio calculated, I still can’t bring closure to my thoughts on this topic.Here’s where it gets tricky for me and why I find myself lying awake at night. Who is my inspiration and what is it that sustains my passion for learning? Every time I think about it, I circle back around to the other teachers in my life. Not the ones with college degrees. But rather the ones with class rings and new drivers licenses. Although a few years removed from the classroom, I still think about the students that fuel my passion for learning and drive the need to learn more so I can better serve their needs. I remember the student who taught me how to be afraid of technology when he said "Don’t worry Mrs. Lyman, you can’t break it. Just click on whatever you have to to make it go away." And the student that doesn’t have any need for my equations sheet because he will just derive the equation from the units? And the student, who when asked what she wanted me to know about her, told me "please don’t ignore me, because some teachers do."? That’s right. I’m lying awake at night, not counting sheep, rather counting the students that have challenged me to make their educational experiences stronger. My teachers built the foundation, and I am grateful for that. It is our students who are using that foundation to construct an elaborate piece of art. They are the source of the inspiration, passion and joy that drive my learning.

  2. Fascinating. I’d love to see someone study whether inspirational, dynamic teaching is encouraged or discouraged in various environments. And if so, how? The reason I’m asking is that many phenomenal teachers experience undertow from parents, co-workers, or administrators simply because the odds are most inspirational teachers are the opposite of conformist. I’m thinking about how Esme Codell (memoir: Educating Esme) who stuck out like a sore thumb, to the point where her administrators were actively against her, despite showing amazing growth on test scores. I’m thinking about Ron Clark, who blatantly went against what his principal wanted him to do, using his rule system that he knew would work wonders with kids.I consider myself very lucky to teach in a work climate where innovation is actively encouraged. My fear is that in many districts, the weight of "we’ve always done it this way" prevails. In the private sector, if you fail to innovate, the company goes under. Schools should take a cue from Google. They allow their employees what they call "20% Time" in which an employee can take 20% of his day or week to work on a new idea without fear of reprisal from the management. The idea for Gmail came out of this.Once I had a mentor teacher with 50 yeas experience in education. He’d taught children all over the world, and had a terminal degree. I’ll never forget reading an article he wrote in one of our professional journals entitled, "Change Comes Slowly in Red Brick Buildings." The article skewered practices of carrying out the status quo in American public education.I’ve never worked in corporate America. I’ve never worked outside of the public sector. I’ve never been anything but a teacher. So I’m unaware of what I don’t know. Perhaps all institutions–public and private–deal with the ups and downs of doing things the traditional way. If you go to the library and pick up a copy of Harvard Business Review, you’ll see all sorts of articles directed at CEO’s and upper management on how to create an organization that creates. While many would say that innovation can only come from a bottom-up management structure (as opposed to a top-down one) I think Google is proving that you can make policies that actively encourage innovation. Netflix lets their employees work whenever they want, as long as they get the job done. (Cool!)

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